My favorite area of presidential history to study is unequivocally the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I have watched numerous documentaries and scientific programs on the subject. Viewing one such program led to an extraordinary experience. It was called JFK: The Ruby Connection, aired by the Discovery Channel. During one part of the show, the scene of Lee Harvey Oswald's murder is recreated with the help of James Leavelle. Many people do not know Mr. Leavelle by name, and prior to that TV airing neither did I. But if you have seen Robert Jackson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of the Oswald shooting, you are familiar with the man in the light-colored suit and hat handcuffed to the accused assassin. That is Mr. Leavelle.
To be honest, I was surprised Mr. Leavelle was still alive, as for some reason in the famous photograph he had struck me as older than what his actual age was at the time: forty-three. Upon conducting some research, I was amazed to learn that Mr. Leavelle was also at the Pearl Harbor Naval Base when it was attacked on December 7, 1941. My family had plans to travel to Texas the following month as a high school graduation present so I could visit my only remaining presidential burial site, and I knew I had to do my utmost to meet Mr. Leavelle while we were down there.
Based on his presence in the Discovery Channel show, I assumed the former detective still resided in Texas. My assumption was correct, as a quick internet search proved. I found an address for Mr. Leavelle located near Dallas that fan mail could be sent to. Soon after, I crafted a letter in which I explained I was a high school senior who visited president graves, and that I would love to meet him and, if permitted, interview him for my website. My father took care of the pre-addressed return envelope (stamp included), and sent the letter via the U.S. Postal Service.
Three days later, to my shock there was a message in my e-mail inbox from the ninety-one-year-old former homicide detective. Mr. Leavelle wrote that I seemed to have an ambitious trip planned and that he "would be happy for [us] to drop by for a visit." He provided us with his home telephone number and said to call him when we were down in Texas. It was almost impossible to fathom our success. Through subsequent e-mails we arranged to meet with Mr. Leavelle on Monday, April 23rd.
Sometime after finalizing our plans, my father's friend, Mike, told him about a video he saw that was related to a recent development in Florida. The Republican National Convention was to be held in Tampa in a few months, and for security purposes the mayor wanted to temporarily prohibit pedestrians from possessing concealed guns in the surrounding area. The state's gun laws prevented this from happening, and instead a ban was placed on Super Soakers. At the time, my father and I were working on a reality TV show concept, Scofflaws, that would satirize laws, rules, and regulations that we viewed as silly. With this in mind, the idea was hatched for us to recreate the Pulitzer Prize-winning picture of Oswald's shooting with Mr. Leavelle, except with a Super Soaker. I was not supportive of the plan, as I did not want to risk alienating the former detective and cause him to turn us away. However, my father said it would be an incredible publicity picture for the show, and insisted we would ask Mr. Leavelle to participate after the interview when he had already warmed up to us. I reluctantly acquiesced.
The plan was for me to portray Oswald, my father to portray his assailant, Jack Ruby, and Mr. Leavelle would obviously be himself. We did need someone else to take the picture though, and my mother was ill so she and my sister could no longer join us on the trip. A photographer friend of ours, Troy, was willing to help us, but had been hired for a paid event and was unable to do so. My father asked for some referrals from Troy, and we made an arrangement with a photographer in Texas. He said that if we could convince Mr. Leavelle to sit for a portrait, he would not charge us, although my father promised to give him some gas money. With the photography taken care of, my father and I spent time buying items like toy handcuffs and appropriate attire so the murder scene could be properly recreated.
Weeks passed and on April 18th the two of us flew to Texas. We went to many graves and historic sites over the course of the next few days. On Saturday the 21st, after visiting Dwight Eisenhower's birthplace, my father called Mr. Leavelle to confirm our Monday plans. Unfortunately, the retired lawman had a heart-related health scare just that morning and was rushed to the hospital. He had returned home, but now had an important medical appointment scheduled on Monday. He wondered if we could move up our visit and go over the following day, Sunday. Of course we had to accept, but our arrangement with the photographer was nearly ruined, as when we called him he said he had a family event the next day. Luckily, it was worked out that he would visit with us and Mr. Leavelle for a short while, but would have to leave before too long. That meant instead of interviewing Mr. Leavelle and allowing time for him to warm up to us, and then asking if he would take part in our satirical picture, we had to ask our outlandish request first.
The next day in the late morning we set out on the half hour drive to the assisted living facility where the Leavelles resided. We arrived a few minutes early, and we took some time to gather together our belongings. My father reasoned we should take the items for the photograph recreation inside with us, as Mr. Leavelle would be less likely to turn us down if we had already brought the clothing and props in. Around this time, the photographer, Dylan, arrived and after introductions the three of us walked to the door. We were greeted by a facility employee, who was just leaving, and then by Mr. and Mrs. Leavelle, who were seated in the living room. We introduced ourselves and I presented Mrs. Leavelle with a bouquet of flowers we had purchased.
Soon Mr. Leavelle led us into his office. Once we were all situated, due to Dylan's time constraints, my father had to delve right into the photograph recreation pitch. He explained that, separate from my website, we were working on a reality TV concept that would satirically provide social commentary on bizarre laws and rules. He also conveyed how our photograph idea was not intended to poke fun of the Oswald killing, but rather the silly Super Soaker ban in Tampa. Mr. Leavelle took it all in while looking through a portfolio my father had provided related to a different, abandoned concept. All the while Dylan snapped pictures of the exchange, which captured my father's animated gesticulations and the reasonably concerned expression on my face.
Even though he was not a proponent of increased gun control, I suppose even Mr. Leavelle could see the absurdity of the prohibition of Super Soakers because he agreed to replicate the photograph with us! Before we got ready to pose for our satirical piece, I asked the former detective if he would autograph a poster of the famous picture to me, which he said he would do. He asked whether I wanted him to sign it "James Leavelle" or "Jim Leavelle," noting he typically signed as the latter for his friends. In near unison my father and I said he could sign with whichever name he was comfortable. Already greatly relieved that he was willing to be in our Super Soaker picture, I felt even better when he signed as "Jim Leavelle."
Readying for the Super Soaker picture, I changed into a collared shirt and sweater like Oswald had worn, while my father put on a suit jacket and donned a fedora that looked just like Ruby's. The Leavelles' residence had a brick exterior, which we decided would provide the best backdrop for the recreation. On the off chance Mr. Leavelle didn't have a hat, we had purchased one that was similar in color to the hat he wore during the shooting, though it did not otherwise resemble his famous Resistol. Mr. Leavelle saw our "just in case" hat and promptly went back inside to retrieve some better-looking headwear. He soon returned with a much more suitable hat, and I handcuffed myself to the same man Oswald had been handcuffed to forty-nine years prior (although the 2012 pair was fake). Using my just-signed poster as a reference, Dylan guided the three of us so we were positioned as our counterparts were in 1963. He snapped several dozen pictures (this was our favorite). When we were done outside we went back into Mr. Leavelle's office and changed out of our costumes. We chatted some more with the legendary lawman while Dylan continued photographing. He was so pleased with what he took that when Dylan decided to leave he waved off my father's attempt to give him money for gas.
After Dylan departed, we set up for the interview. I had previously written some questions down on a notepad, and on the ride to the Leavelle residence I briefly tried practicing asking them, but I was nervous and fumbled a bit. I decided practicing was not worth the stress and I would just wing it when the time came. The session started well. I joked that since the two violent events Mr. Leavelle witnessed occurred on a Sunday, the same day of the week as our meeting, I hoped we were not in any danger. The former detective laughed, and then the actual interview began. I first asked him about his time on the USS Whitney, a destroyer tender that was stationed in Pearl Harbor during the infamous attack. He explained what his duties were upon the vessel, as well as what he was doing when the military strike commenced. Of course we later discussed at length the Kennedy assassination and Oswald's murder. Mr. Leavelle, who complimented me on my knowledge of the subject, remembered facts in exquisite detail. The things he said that I already knew matched up, and I was very impressed with his memory. He also filled in many gaps in my education, explaining why he was tasked with escorting Oswald during the transfer and how Ruby snuck into the basement of police headquarters.
As is the case with most JFK assassination-related conversations, the topic of conspiracy theories arose. I began to say how Mr. Leavelle personally did not believe in the theories, but as I was mid-sentence the native Texan corrected me. He said he knew better than to believe in them, which made me chuckle. The retired detective explained about various instances when people had told him they possessed evidence of a conspiracy, with some of the theories bordering upon absurd. He often caught these people in lies, after which they admitted to making up their tales. Even a priest confessed to lying to him!
With my last question to the retired detective, I asked if his involvement in Pearl Harbor's attack and Oswald's shooting had any effect on how he lived his life subsequently. Mr. Leavelle chose to use a recent incident to explain his answer, and revealed that the previous year he fell at his daughter's home and sustained an injury that required the removal of his left eye. I had previously read on the internet that he fell and injured his eye, but I did not know the extent of the damage. He moved around with such ease that my father and I never would have suspected he had a glass eye. "I don't let what happened interfere with my regular life or my family's life any," he remarked. Between his wit, recollection of facts, and fortitude in the face of adversity, it was very easy to be in awe of the ninety-one-year-old Texan.
The insightful interview lasted just under an hour. After it wrapped up, we spent some more time in Mr. Leavelle's office. He pointed out different items in the room, such as a picture of him with former President Gerald Ford. There were several awards spanning many years that adorned the shelves and walls, and it was nice to see how valued Mr. Leavelle was by the Dallas Police Department, even in present day. After three hours, as much as we would have liked to stay longer, it was time to leave. My father and I gathered up our belongings and Mr. Leavelle showed us out and waved goodbye, ending one of the most incredible experiences of our lives.
A video of my interview with former Detective James Leavelle can be viewed below.
Content copyright 2009-2017. Kurt Deion. All rights reserved.